Two Palm Beach County Captains Claim Their Discipline Violates First Amendment

Two captains with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue have filed suit claiming the department violated their First Amendment rights by disciplining them for their social media posts. Captain AJ O’Laughlin and Captain Crystal Little filed suit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court last week. Both received a written warning for violating the department’s social media policy.

At issue was a series of posts by Captain O’Laughlin criticizing a union official who sought to use “Union Time Pool” over the 2018 holidays. The posts included a screen shot showing the Thanksgiving UTP, which was allegedly taken by the “Fire Rescue Staffing Officer.”

According to the complaint, Captain O’Laughlin posted several derogatory comments on a closed group on Facebook about the official including: “This person is a theft [sic] just thinking about putting this into Telestaff. This is your Union leadership.” Captain O’Laughlin previously ran for president of IAFF Local 2928.

Captain Little added: “Nice to know the current retired president thinks it’s ok to use UTP for holidays!! Thanks AJ for keeping them accountable. And on that note our fucking stellar staffing officer just blindly approved it?”

The captains were accused of violating the department’s social media policy. The lawsuit claims the social media policy violates the First Amendment as a prior restraint, and the discipline is therefore unconstitutional. The suit also alleges a violation of the free speech provision in Florida’s constitution.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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